Photo by Mike Lawrence/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
The New York Red Bulls came off their World Cup break not that long ago, yet much of the talk surrounding the club last week was about how fatigued some of the players felt during a challenging but not uncommon three-games-in-eight-days stretch.
The burning question is why?
Several reasons could be pointed to as to why many of the Red Bulls felt so tired last week despite having recently enjoyed almost a two-week break from league play at the end of June. One that seems to hold some weight is that nine players started in each of New York’s matches against the Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union and San Jose Earthquakes, and another is that the Red Bulls are a veteran-laden team with several of its most important players being close to or on the wrong side of 30.
Those two explanations seem reasonable enough to explain why New York were running out of gas, but they could be part of a bigger issue in terms of a lack of player rotation in the club’s starting lineup and might explain why both Luis Robles and Eric Alexander confessed that teammates were quite fatigued over the course of the eight days.
A close look at the numbers just past the mid-way point of the season shows that Thierry Henry, 36, has started 17 of the Red Bulls’ 20 league games, sitting out only when games are played on turf. Jamison Olave, 33, has also playee in the same amount of matches. Red-hot forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, 29, has started 16. Lloyd Sam, also 29, has been in the lineup for every game this season.
Even younger regulars like the 26-year-old Alexander and 27-year-old Dax McCarty have also been used with much regularity, with the former starting 18 matches and the latter 15 – and McCarty’s number would likely be higher if not for a knee injury suffered just before the World Cup break.
The point is that there has not been much of a rotation of players in the lineup that head coach Mike Petke has deployed on a weekly basis. While that is understandable given the New York market’s extreme thirst for fielding a winning team, Petke’s over-reliance on his veterans and not his youngsters might be hurting the club more than helping it.
Granted, some of New York’s reserves have not performed when called upon: Right back Richard Eckersley’s play was downright dour at the start of the season and he isn’t even dressing these days, center back Armando has seen some solid play overshadowed by his physicality and multiple league suspensions, and utility man Bobby Convey has not made much of an impact as a starter or off the bench.
The Red Bulls’ bench might not be the most well-constructed one in the league, but the point remains that the club has struggled on its way to holding a very mediocre record of 5-6-9. What makes things more concerning is that multiple New York starters were running on tired legs even in the opening matches of last week’s busy stretch, with one unspecified player telling Robles in the first halves of two games that he felt he had already played 90 minutes.
It was a bit puzzling to many observers that Petke made so few changes to the lineup that faced the Earthquakes at home three days after suffering a 3-1 road loss to Union. No, PPL Park is not all that far from Red Bull Arena, but Petke had admitted following the defeat to Philadelphia that he noticed some of his players were a bit winded during pre-game warm-ups.
That they felt that way during a kind three-games-in-eight-days stretch – they opened up at home, traveled by bus approximately two hours away to face their nearest rival and then returned to Red Bull Arena – is concerning. It might be a development that forces Petke to start turning to his lesser-used players a bit more during the second half of the season, which includes CONCACAF Champions League group games for New York.
No, Petke does not need to make wholesale changes and field inexperienced players like Ruben Bover, Marius Obekop or rookie Eric Stevenson. But what the second-year head coach could do is turn to the likes of Kosuke Kimura (nine starts in 11 appearances), Connor Lade (zero starts in five appearances) and Andre Akpan (zero starts in five appearances) a bit more in order to help keep the team fresh as the stretch run and playoffs approach.
If he doesn’t, the Red Bulls better hope their veteran players have enough left in the tank to continue carrying the load all the way through to the postseason.